Handpicked HMS Vanguard crew worked like clockwork

The Port side of HMS Vanguard showing her secondary armament of 5.25in guns
The Port side of HMS Vanguard showing her secondary armament of 5.25in guns
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In 1953 William Tofts received what he described as ‘the draft of a lifetime’ to serve in HMS Vanguard.

He told me: ‘As I remember, the crew for the Vanguard were all handpicked. Everyone was a little bit special with nothing against their names.’

While serving in the ship there were several times when the guns were fired and it was William who was in the turret operating the breech.

‘To get into the gun turret meant rolling on the deck underneath the turret and then entering the gun house where the two 15in guns were located,’ he said. ‘The four turrets from bow to stern were A & B, manned by sailors and the rear guns, X & Y, manned by Royal Marines.’

He said everyone worked like clockwork. The shell came up from the magazine deep down in the ship by mechanical lift and was loaded into the breech by hydraulic ram. Then, two large silken bags of cordite were rammed in behind the shell. The bag was pierced and all was ready for firing.

A 15in shell weighed 1,920lb with a range of about 25 miles. To reach a target of that distance the shell would reach a height of five miles before plummeting down. Of course for less distance the measurement would be different.

William told me the recoil inside the turret was about three feet and anyone standing behind the breech had to be well aware of what was happening and stand well clear.

Many say that they have heard of ships firing broadsides, all guns firing at once, but this was such a precarious move that it was rarely done and if it was, it was only done once.

I remember talking to a gunner from HMS Nelson which had nine 16in guns which all fired at once. It nearly shook the ship apart with many rivets popping out. That action was soon blocked and guns were fired at a different rate after that.

Vanguard ended her commission at Devonport in 1954 and the ship’s company was despatched to other ships.

William was sent to HMS Jamacia where he was in the presence of Lord Louis Mountbatten who William tells me was a top man to work for. ‘He was a man’s man was Lord Louis,’ he said. ‘He would always stand up for the lower rates.’

William told me of a time when Lord Louis was visiting Jamaica and William was part of the crew of the Admiral’s barge.

Lord Louis always told the bosun in charge of the boat to ‘stand off’ when he visited a ship and not to ‘lay alongside’ which was the norm.

The Officer of the Watch on Jamaica told the crew of the barge to tie up and wait. ‘We’re not allowed to sir’ the bosun told the officer who then rebuked him and told him to obey orders.

When it came for the time for Mountbatten to leave the ship the crew of the barge had to get off the ship, man the barge, get it started and then take it to the gangway to meet Mountbatten.

He was kept waiting he went ballistic at the bosun who was not taking any of that. He explained to his passenger what had happened with the Officer of the Watch. Mountbatten told the bosun to turn the barge about and return to the ship where he certainly tore the officer off a strip.

Many years later when William was visiting Broadlands, Mountbatten’s home at Romsey, he and William met and spoke like old friends.

In 1963 William went into training as gunnery instructor and took a course at HMS Excellent, Whale Island. William told me it was one of the hardest tasks in the navy.

To get passed-out as a GI was an achievement which surpassed all other tests and you were never the same man again. The respect received by these men was unsurpassed.

After 22 years service and suffering severe back problems William was invalided out of the navy as a petty officer in 1970. The memories he has would fill a book and I can only thank him for letting me into some of them.